Potential Trade Packages, Landing Spots If Deshaun Watson Requests a Trade
Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson hasn't formally requested a trade from the Houston Texans, and there's no guarantee such a request would be granted anyway.
But the AFC's highest-rated passer from 2020 and the second-highest-rated qualified passer in NFL history has publicly—and maybe even cryptically—called out his team as it rebuilds the front office and coaching staff following an ugly 4-12 season.
"Rumors already are circulating, and we've already heard them from multiple different people, that Watson has quietly broached with teammates the possibility of requesting a trade," Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio wrote Thursday. "If that's happening, it may just be a strategic effort to ensure his views are respected by ownership. Regardless, it raises the stakes and crosses a bridge and potentially sets the foundation for Watson eventually to decide that he'd like to continue his career elsewhere."
Trading a superstar quarterback in his prime is essentially unprecedented, but the Texans run an unorthodox operation, to put it kindly.
The franchise recently made the 25-year-old the second-highest-paid player in NFL history, but according to Spotrac, his four-year, $156 million contract would leave the Texans with a "mere" $21.6 million dead-cap hit in the event of the trade this offseason.
The Texans, who lack first- and second-round picks in the 2021 NFL draft, would also likely get a tremendous haul in return for Watson, and it's worth noting top executives Nick Caserio (the incoming general manager who was just hired) and Jack Easterby weren't part of the process of drafting the former Clemson star in 2017.
In fact, ownership has technically changed since then, as well. Janice and Cal McNair took over upon Bob McNair's death in 2018.
Put all of that together and a trade simply can't be ruled out. So, let's take a look at what might make the most sense if one were to go down.
What Should Houston Expect in Return?
There aren't a lot of recent precedents to reference, so it's tough to tell.
The last blockbuster trade involving a starting quarterback saw the Chicago Bears acquire Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos in exchange for two first-round picks and a third-rounder (they also sent Kyle Orton to Denver and received a fifth-round pick back from the Broncos). But that was back in 2009, and Cutler didn't have Watson's current ceiling or track record.
Last season, cornerback Jalen Ramsey fetched the Jacksonville Jaguars two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder from the Los Angeles Rams.
Earlier that year, these Texans sent the Miami Dolphins two first-round selections and a second-rounder as part of a large package that landed them left tackle Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Kenny Stills and a pair of Day 3 draft picks (they also surrendered defensive back Johnson Bademosi and offensive tackle Julie'n Davenport).
And in 2018, the then-Oakland Raiders essentially netted two first-round picks in exchange for star edge-defender Khalil Mack in a trade with Chicago.
With that in mind, two first-rounders would likely be the starting point in trade talks. Beyond that, a team interested in Watson would likely have to give up at least one Day 2 draft pick or some other degree of draft capital and actual players (potentially a short- or long-term replacement for Watson or at least one other player who is cheap and young).
With that in mind, let's pitch some hypothetical deals.
The Carolina Panthers are likely to give veteran Teddy Bridgewater another shot under center next year since they owe him most of his $23 million 2021 salary-cap hit anyway, but head coach Matt Rhule hasn't guaranteed him the starting job after a so-so debut season in Carolina.
The Panthers can still save $3 million by releasing Bridgewater and $13 million if they happen to find a trade partner for him. If they aren't confident he can become an elite franchise quarterback, it's possible they'll see if the Texans are interested in using him as a bridge before offering up the No. 8 overall pick in 2021 and at least a first-rounder in 2022.
They could even throw in young corner Donte Jackson for a team that is in dire need of help in that spot, but I doubt they'd want to sacrifice a key young defensive player without getting some draft capital back. The point is, there are options here.
Let's call it Bridgewater, the 2021 No. 8 overall pick, a 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 first-rounder for Watson. Houston would save a bunch of cash in the long run and have a chance to rebuild much more quickly and efficiently, while the Panthers would likely become a contender with Watson joining DJ Moore and Christian McCaffrey in Rhule's offense.
Mitchell Trubisky could still save his job in the playoffs, and it's possible he's already salvaged it for 2021 now that the Chicago Bears are unlikely to have a shot at any of the draft's top quarterbacks. But the fourth-year No. 2 overall pick has an expiring contract, and he's been a disappointment overall.
General manager Ryan Pace could be desperate, especially considering the Nick Foles experiment failed in 2020. The problem is they're essentially married to Foles at a rate of $6.7 million in 2021, and they're projected to have no cap space with which to work.
Still, with the defense stacked with expensive talent and centerpiece Khalil Mack approaching 30, the Bears might be tempted to go all-in and offer Foles, their next two first-round picks and at least one upcoming Day 2 selection in exchange for Watson.
That still might not be enough, and they wouldn't have much to offer on the roster considering that aforementioned hurry to compete. But it can't be ruled out.
The Denver Broncos are still conducting a search for their next general manager, so it's tough to tell where they'll go with the quarterback position in 2021. That said, even though executive John Elway still has "high hopes" for Drew Lock, the 2019 second-round pick completed just 57.3 percent of his passes and was the league's fourth-lowest-rated qualified passer in 2020.
They have the No. 9 overall pick in the draft and should have enough cap space to easily afford Watson in 2021. They won't be as flush with cash if they pay up to keep impending free-agent safety Justin Simmons, but they might also decide to move on from veteran pass-rusher Von Miller in order to save $18 million.
Let's call it Lock, the 2021 No. 9 overall pick, a 2021 second-round pick and a 2022 first-rounder for Watson. The Texans would again save money and add a ton of draft capital, they'd take a low-cost flier on Lock, and they'd have a shot at Zach Wilson or Trey Lance in the draft. Meanwhile, Watson would likely jump at a chance to team up with Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant and a talented offensive line in Denver.
This one makes quite a lot of sense, although I'm sure the Texans would rather trade Watson out of the conference.
This scenario would require quite a few pieces to fall into place. After all, the Detroit Lions owe veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford $33 million in 2021, and we're still waiting to find out who will serve as the general manager and head coach next year.
But there's a chance the incoming regime will prefer to start from scratch. Stafford has led the team to exactly zero playoff wins in 12 seasons, and Detroit can save $14 million by trading or releasing the soon-to-be 33-year-old this offseason.
That could enable them to chase Watson with the No. 7 overall pick in this year's draft, along with a second-rounder this year and a first-round selection in 2022. That may or may not suffice, but it might be worth the offer if you're essentially getting Watson instead of Wilson or Lance and you think you can compete enough next year to diminish that 2021 draft capital you're selling off.
A steeper alternative could be an offer that sends 2020 No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah to Houston along with the 2021 No. 7 overall selection and some extra draft capital tantamount to a Day 2 selection. But I'm sure a lot of Lions fans would be infuriated by such a package since Stafford is still more than capable at a lower salary than Watson.
But if the stars aligned, would Detroit even be compelling enough for Watson to waive his no-trade clause? That's the great unknown with all these situations, though it would sure help the Lions if they were to re-sign impending free-agent receiver Kenny Golladay.
Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich has expressed confidence that 39-year-old Philip Rivers has the ability to remain effective beyond 2020. But the quarterback's contract is about to expire, and he has at least expressed a lack of certainty about his future.
The Colts are built to compete now, but Rivers has a poor reputation in key moments and an 84.2 career playoff passer rating.
If he fails miserably again this postseason, Colts general manager Chris Ballard and Reich could decide to go in a new direction. They have more projected salary-cap space than anybody in the NFL except the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars, and they'd have at least the 22nd overall draft pick if they were to lose Saturday to the Buffalo Bills.
The major potential problem, of course, is that the Colts and Texans play together in the AFC South. That might not make a trade impossible, but if there are other suitors for Watson, Indy would likely have to offer an extra-sweet package in order to win those sweepstakes.
We're likely talking about three consecutive first-round picks in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Steep? Indeed. But if the Colts think he's the final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle and those picks will all be at the bottom of Round 1, it's worth considering.
Las Vegas Raiders
Between Dwayne Haskins rumors in 2019 and the acquisition of Marcus Mariota in 2020, the Jon Gruden-era Las Vegas Raiders have never seemed enamored with quarterback Derek Carr. After another non-playoff campaign, it wouldn't be shocking if they decided to save $19.6 million and go in a new direction under center.
Carr also possesses enough upside and comes cheap enough that the Texans could take a flier on him in return for Watson. He'd cost less than $20 million in 2021 and 2022 and would at least work as a bridge to the next era in Houston, with no strings attached beyond that 2022 season.
The Texans would also likely demand the Raiders' No. 17 overall selection in 2021 and their first-round pick in 2022, and even that might not be enough if they don't value Carr or have top-10 picks on the table from other suitors.
It would definitely be a "go big or go home" move for Gruden either way, but Watson is a superstar and the Las Vegas offensive line is aging. Carr might have been the league's 10th-highest-rated passer this year, but he hasn't been a consistent game-changer like Watson.
This one is going well outside the box, but hear me out.
Former Texans head coach/general manager Bill O'Brien dug the hole. He traded away what is now the No. 3 overall pick in this year's draft as part of a package for Tunsil, and he handed Watson that megadeal prior to this season. If Watson is disgruntled and requests a trade, the best way to start repairing O'Brien's damage might be trying to get that premium selection back from Miami.
As a rookie, 2020 No. 5 overall pick Tua Tagovailoa was somewhat disappointing, as he lacked impact plays under center for the Dolphins. With more certainty at quarterback, Miami—which is loaded with cap space and draft capital—could become an instant Super Bowl contender.
So what if the Dolphins were to flip that No. 3 pick back to Houston along with Tagovailoa in exchange for Watson? The Texans would get past that headache, save a bunch of money, still have a young potential franchise quarterback and have the ability to replace DeAndre Hopkins or rebuild the defense with somebody like Ja'Marr Chase or Micah Parsons in the draft.
It might be a win-win. The Dolphins would upgrade to a star quarterback in his prime and still have a first-round pick later in Round 1, while the Texans could pair Tua with a potential superstar at the top of this draft and use the extra cash to fill out a hurting roster as those youngsters develop alongside Tunsil, a young but talented offensive line and current top receiver Will Fuller V.
New England Patriots
In replacing the departed Tom Brady last offseason, the New England Patriots took a half-measure and jumped at a discount for Cam Newton. It didn't work out.
If the Pats are unwilling to commit to a full rebuild via the draft this offseason, they could go YOLO and make a run at Watson.
Caserio and Easterby have long relationships with Pats head coach Bill Belichick, so it's natural to think they might connect if Watson wants out. The Patriots have a glaring opening under center, they should have the cap space to make room for Watson, and they might not be able to land any of the draft's four perceived elite quarterback prospects with the No. 15 overall selection.
A potential package from Belichick could include 2019 fourth-round quarterback Jarrett Stidham, that 2021 No. 15 overall pick, a second-rounder in 2021 and another first-round selection in 2022. That might not even be enough, and they may have to be willing to part with a young corner like J.C. Jackson or Jonathan Jones.
For Watson rather than the current alternatives, that might be a sacrifice they're willing to make.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers haven't been effusive about current starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returning in 2021, and they can save $23.4 million by parting ways with Jimmy G this offseason. A year removed from a Super Bowl run, they're definitely in win-now mode, and Watson would clearly be an upgrade over the oft-injured Garoppolo.
So why not see if the Texans want to take a one-year flier on Garoppolo, throw in the No. 12 overall selection in this year's draft and sacrifice a 2022 first-round pick that you hope will be in the bottom portion of Round 1 anyway?
The Texans might also require at least another Day 2 pick in 2021 or 2022, but Watson may be more valuable to the Niners than three primo picks over the next two years. Besides, the cap hits for Watson and Garoppolo are almost identical during that span. The 49ers definitely have the cap space to make it work.
This would basically come down to the Texans' feelings regarding Garoppolo. And for what it's worth, Caserio played a role in the Patriots drafting Jimmy G back in 2014.
Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team has already given up on 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins under center, and there's little reason to believe that the 36-year-old Alex Smith will suddenly lead the team on a Super Bowl run in the next few years.
Head coach Ron Rivera might prefer a fresh start at the sport's most important position, and it helps that Washington is projected to enter 2020 with more salary-cap space than all but four other teams.
However, making the playoffs with a losing record might have been a severe blow to Washington's chances of landing Watson from Houston. Even with a first-round exit, the WFT will settle for the No. 19 overall pick at best.
This year's first-round pick, another first-rounder in 2021 and additional draft capital in the Day 2 range still might not be enough to win the Watson sweepstakes. However, three first-round picks might be too steep for an organization that also needs to address the offensive line, the receiving corps and the secondary.
So this is a stretch, but it shouldn't be ruled out if the WFT is desperate for a restart. The only other question is whether Watson would be willing to go to Washington.
Teams That Were Excluded
A new regime is being installed, and they haven't guaranteed anything to expensive centerpieces Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but the Falcons are slated to enter 2021 more than $30 million over the projected cap. Ryan's contract is nearly impossible to trade before June 1 (and likely after that as well), and moving Jones before that date would also cost them big bucks. This just isn't realistic.
Los Angeles Rams
It's possible they're ready to give up on Jared Goff, but the Rams lack cap space and draft capital (they don't have a first-round pick this year). Meanwhile, Goff's four-year, $134 million contract makes him pretty much untradeable.
New Orleans Saints
They're projected to be more than $70 million over the cap. They might be ready to move on from Carson Wentz, but doing so before June 1 would be nearly impossible without absorbing an even larger cap hit in 2021. Jalen Hurts has also shown promise, so a trade for Watson seems extremely far-fetched.
Ben Roethlisberger could retire, but there have been no strong indications that will happen. If not, his $22.25 million dead-cap hit for 2021 is an albatross for a team that is on track to be more than $20 million over the cap.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brady has consistently said he wants to play until he's at least 45, and there's little reason to expect him to suddenly walk away at age 43 after a rejuvenated performance in his inaugural campaign with the Bucs.